So much depressing news is coming out of Washington that it was a relief to attend an event last week and leave with a bit of optimism about a local problem.
The source of the optimism was a talk by UCLA Professor Pedro Noguera at East High School. Noguera's topic – America's failure to invest enough in overcoming poverty's effects on school children – was important, and he's an inspiring speaker.
But equally important was who brought Noguera here: His talk was part of his two-day visit to East, sponsored by the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education.
Several years ago, academic achievement at East had gotten so bad that the state ordered the school district to find a way to improve it or shut it down. School board President Van White turned to the university's Warner School, which is now managing the operation of the school – with the intense involvement of UR President Joel Seligman.
I haven't seen a major community leader step this firmly to the side of Rochester's public schools since the night in the late 1960's when I watched Xerox President Joe Wilson address a highly emotional school board meeting, adding his voice, and his clout, to those urging the integration of Rochester's schools.
At the heart of the integration movement was concern over the growing isolation of the city's poorest children into schools where nearly every other child was also poor. And, of course, black or Hispanic.
The concentration of the city's poverty was having a terrible impact, on neighborhoods, on families, and on children. Since then, the number of people in poverty has grown. And so has the impact – on children and on city schools.
Despite abundant evidence, the broad public still refuses to recognize that concentrated poverty is the reason for the schools' low achievement and graduation rates. Instead, the school district gets the blame.
Teachers, schools, children, parents: all can do a better job. But they are facing an enormous challenge, and that challenge is the concentrated poverty and its effects. Schools cannot overcome those effects by themselves.
That's part of Pedro Noguera's message, it is something that the president of the University of Rochester seems to have understood and taken to heart. Significantly, he has put the resources and the name of the university to work at East High School.
In his talk, Noguera paid tribute to that. Not many universities in this country are doing what the UR is doing, he said. "A university has staked its reputation on getting this school" to where it needs to be, he said. "That is something that is not typical."
"I hope," he said, "that it would become a model."
Seligman has continued to be personally involved in the East partnership, and in his brief remarks before Noguera spoke, Seligman said it has been "a real education" for him.
"The issues are complex," he said, "and they're hard." He emphasized "how much perseverance, how much patience is required" to be successful in an urban school effort like this one.
And Seligman was clear: the UR is in this for the long haul. "This is the second year" of the East-UR partnership, he said. "We have many years to go."
"We are committed to East High School," he said, "because we are the University of Rochester."
That attitude, exhibited by the head of one of the most important institutions in the region, is worth spreading to every college and university president and every corporate CEO in the area. On its own, the UR can't work miracles. But it has clout in the community. It can set the tone. It can inspire. It can insist that other community leaders join it.
Seligman's message at East – and his enthusiastic reception of the message Noguera delivered – gives me hope that he'll help the UR do just that.
Next week: more on Noguera's message.